Note: This feature originally ran in February 2020 for Black History Month. Amid the ongoing civil unrest around the country, TV Guide is re-publishing this story and others like it to help foster greater understanding and awareness around issues of racial justice. Black lives matter. Text DEMANDS to 55156 to sign Color of Change's petition to reform policing, and visit blacklivesmatter.carrd.co for more ways to donate, sign petitions, and protest safely.
Black Lighting debuted to glowing praise in January 2018, just one month before Black Panther's record-shattering release. Applauded for its elegant execution and the way it marked a sea change in representation, Black Lighting is the first TV show to focus on a Black family of superheroes. It stars a Black man with albinism, and bucks the stereotype of the homophobic Black family by featuring a lesbian daughter whose parents are totally cool with her sexuality. As it ages, though, the show's trailblazing optics have become less noteworthy than its trailblazing story; Black Lightning is most intriguing as a family drama about how to assert power while living in a state of perpetual crisis. Amid circumstances that directly address or subtly hint at the traumas people in real communities of color face every day, the Pierces often prove that their real superpowers are not so much what they can do, but how they navigate worlds stacked against them.
The Pierces are a polished, powerful, and aspirational quartet. Father Jefferson (Cress Williams), aka Black Lightning, quotes great leaders like Martin Luther King, Jr. and can manipulate electricity. Eldest daughter Anissa (Nafessa Williams), aka Thunder, has no qualms asserting her independence and can make the ground tremble. Teenaged Jennifer (China Anne McClain), aka Lightning, has a natural tendency to rebel and can shoot bolts of light. Mother Lynn (Christine Adams) frequently mediates disputes between the kids and her ex-husband, and though she's not a metahuman like them, she's using science to create powers of her own.
The family resides in Freeland, a fictional all-Black township where Jefferson once served as principal at Garfield High School and has seen firsthand how students and parents struggle with poverty, underemployment, police harassment, crime, drugs, and gangs. The community is almost always near a boiling point. Of course, Freeland's complications by no means define the Black experience in totality, but for people who might see the tony suburban neighborhoods on black-ish and This Is Us as too good to be true, Freeland may look more familiar. "These issues are probably specific to urban families," Cress Williams told TV Guide, "where you have criminal elements, darker elements, pulling at your children."
African American storytelling traditions historically have put emphasis on a sense of place and devotion to the neighborhood, and the bonds that neighborhoods create remain enduring themes in Black stories. On The Neighborhood, for example, Calvin Butler (Cedric the Entertainer) wants to preserve his California community from gentrification; on This Is Us, Randall (Sterling K. Brown) appoints himself savior of a Philadelphia enclave nearby. From The Chi to The Wire to Insecure, Black characters often demonstrate allegiances to their neighborhoods so strong they can trump other loyalties. Hip-hop, which Black Lighting uses liberally, animates narratives from people who want to rule the neighborhood as much as they want to fix it or leave and never return. Jefferson Pierce honors this convention from day one, and it puts such a strain on his marriage that Lynn divorced him out of concern for their family's safety. They now co-parent with varying degrees of grace, but the tension between Jefferson's noble mission and Lynn's practicality gives Black Lightning a baseline anxiety that colors their experiences but doesn't prevent them from functioning with civility.
In the current third season, the family faced its most severe hurdles yet, and the unit began to fracture as a result. Two malevolent forces took root in town: the A.S.A., a secret government organization that illegally experimented on the citizens of Freeland for over 30 years and has occupied the township; and the Markovians, a sketchy nation of people at war with Freeland. These are not preposterous ideas. The United States did run secret scientific trials on Black people from 1932 to 1972 in the infamous Tuskegee Experiment, during which researchers infected hundreds of mostly poor men with syphilis as part of a search for a cure. And we need only look back at uprisings in Ferguson and Baltimore to imagine a Black town under siege by military forces. Whereas Watchmen depicted a horrifying real event and called it by its name, Black Lightning's oppression has a slightly more fantastical bent. For plenty of Black Americans though, The CW drama's fictional terrors are not far-fetched at all. Black Lightning "has done a good job showing what it's like to be a Black American," Nafessa Williams said, "to have the government taking advantage, seeing what we go through."
Scholars have been exploring and validating the notion that trauma can be encoded in genes and passed down — an idea also explored beautifully in Watchmen — and merely surviving the toxic stress and grief they must process on a day-to-day basis makes the Pierces strong to begin with. But the clever irony of the show's premise is that they actually have superpowers, which enable them to enact real change — superpowers that come with costs, and complicated questions: What is the right thing to do when your community has become untenable? How does oppression impact a family? If you had untold power, how far would you go to change things? Is that even your job?
"African American families tend to deal with trauma and grief in specific ways," said LaKesha Roney, a licensed professional counselor in Virginia who specializes in Black family dynamics, severe mental health disorders, and substance abuse. She watches Black Lightning every week with her mom, delighted by the action and the music, and can point to specific ways the Pierces respond to the kind of trauma, stress, and grief she's seen in hundreds of patients for more than 20 years. Three of the most common coping mechanisms are fixing, avoiding, and internalizing/externalizing. Anissa, for example, overextends herself trying to be a "savior of the community." Jennifer is an "avoider," evident in how she initially didn't want her powers or the responsibilities they demanded. Lynn works through her pain by internalizing it, numbing it with green light, the enhancement drug she became hooked on during scientific trials; externalization, Roney said, looks like acting out and fits of violence that are most common in men, but are also displayed by Anissa and Jennifer on the show.
The family's different coping mechanisms are part of the reasons the Pierces have become more disjointed than ever in Season 3. Pacifist Jefferson is horrified to learn that Jennifer, once reluctant to use her powers, has been working as a soldier for the A.S.A, hunting down Markovian targets and working for the rogue, sinister Agent Odell (Bill Duke). Annisa takes on the Robin Hood-like alter ego Blackbird and breaks the law to liberate people detained by the A.S.A. Lynn, meanwhile, struggles to hide her growing addiction to green light from her family.
"When things get difficult in people's lives, particularly in families, people don't always know how to come together," Christine Adams, who plays Lynn, told TV Guide. "They're all convinced their way is the right way ... and they're all flawed." Even Tobias (Marvin Jones III), the villain Lynn crossed boundaries to work with to stop the A.S.A, is presented with a degree of sympathy. "Tobias doesn't exist in a vacuum," Adams said. "He had real trauma. He isn't just a 'bad guy,' he had bad sh-- happen to him. That's a universal idea we're trying to explore." Jefferson could have ended up like Tobias. And while choosing the light or the dark is an ever-present theme in superhero programs, the light is so much harder for the people of Freeland to reach for, considering all they're up against. Black Lighting shows that it's difficult to choose the light, but possible and worth it.
By Episode 13 of this season, the family had earned a hard-fought reunion. Jefferson, Anissa, Jennifer, and their friends (including Anissa's girlfriend Grace, played by Chantal Thuy) teamed up to rescue a captive Lynn and kill bad guy Gravedigger (Wayne Brady) in the process. Things are still bad, although a little bit better, but as the Pierces continue to overcome major crises — including the Arrowverse crossover Crisis on Infinite Earths that opened their world up to new dimensions and more potential trouble — they do so in ways that speak to Black families with a shout or a whisper. They play music, they laugh, they get therapy in a safe space. They find a way.
Inheritors of deep pain and untold power, they're also bestowed with discernment, which sure comes in handy when forced to make decisions that pierce the heart of the Black experience: whether to assimilate or move with militancy; whether to focus on your own family or try to save the neighborhood, too. Black Lightning illuminates the complexity of the choices Black people make in response to adversity, and the show makes room for its characters to find their light in their own time. They don't always get it right, but they do always find their way back to each other, because that's what families do.
"At the root of it all, they love each other," Cress Williams said. "If you take away the superpowers, A.S.A., Tobias, they have a love for each other. That's what keeps everybody coming back together."
Black Lightning airs Tuesdays at 9/8c on The CW.
*This story originally ran February 18, 2020
For Black History Month, TV Guide is celebrating black superheroes in TV and film. As part of The Rise of Black Superheroes, we're honoring the legacies of pioneers like Luke Cage, War Machine, and actress Eartha Kitt; examining how blackness shapes the identities of characters like Iris West, Black Lightning, and John Diggle; exploring what today's Black heroes mean to kids of color; and celebrating the greatest Black superheroes of all time. You can check out more content from The Rise of Black Superheroes here.
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